Talking Through the Door: Book Review

Talking Through the Door: An Anthology of Contemporary Middle Eastern American Writing. By Susan A. Peckham and Lisa S. Majaj. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014. Pp. 244. $34.95 (hardcover). ISBN: 9780815633471.

Talking Through the Door is a timely contribution to the literature of contemporary Middle Eastern American writers and, indeed, to American literature as a whole. The work is a posthumous publication by the late editor Susan Atefat-Peckham, who tragically lost her life in a car accident more than ten years ago. It clearly places itself within the genre of Middle Eastern or Arab American writing, specifically complementing previous volumes such as Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry (1988), Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab American and Arab Canadian Feminists (1994), and Post Gibran: Anthology of Arab American Writing (1998). What sets this volume apart is that, while previous works focused on Arab Americans, this collection features a wider geographic cross-section of selected authors with ethnic connections to the Middle East and North Africa, such as Egypt, Libya, and Iran, as well as a diverse representation of religious and philosophical orientations including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and non-religious perspectives. Hence, the title is “Middle Eastern American” to convey this broader range of writing.

Lisa Suhair Majaj, who helped publish the work, has written a succinct and informative foreword that places the current work in the context of previous literature and touches upon its themes of identity, diaspora, and cultural understanding, among others, setting us up for Peckham’s informative introduction. Peckham begins with a personal reflection, as an Iranian American, on her experience as an ethnic minority and the trouble she had fitting into the neatly delineated categories on so many college applications. Classification and terminology to describe large groups of people is always flawed and problematic, she rightly points out, and, while hesitant, she settles on the term “Middle Eastern American.” While the writers hail from various backgrounds, she hopes to emphasize the American part of their identities and their contribution to American literature, while warning that the creation of “special units” in academia has marginalized such voices, a phenomena she wishes to avoid here.

Peckham’s main purpose is to promote “mutual understanding” between cultures, which was highly relevant in the period during which she worked shortly after the 9/11 attacks and perhaps more so today as prejudice, suspicion, and misunderstanding swirls through contemporary debates about terrorism and immigration. The title’s catch-phrase, Talking Through the Door, comes from a line of Rumi’s love poems and is her allusion to the process of intercultural communication through art by cutting across entrenched cultural and linguistic barriers. Peckham then provides us with a survey, largely based upon Marwan Obiedat’s American Literature and Orientalism, of classic medieval Western caricatures of Islam, which she correctly argues also colored Western monolithic perceptions of the region and its inhabitants as a whole while continuing to the present day with stereotypes found in Hollywood’s scary cookie-cutter Arab terrorist. The goal of art is empathy, she writes, intending for this anthology to build bridges across cultures, form new understandings of the complexity of the region and its peoples, as well as acknowledge the literary merit of its authors in their own right.

Authors’ works include an even mix of prose and poetry, fiction and non-fiction, men and women’s voices. Brief author biographies are in the end-section, which includes their major works. Sources of the featured writings are mentioned in the acknowledgements. There is no glossary or other references.

Overall, the book serves it purposes well and will appeal to a wide audience, undergraduate and graduate students, scholars, and the general public. Readers will find in the introduction important references to seminal works and writers in the genre, and further writings in the biographies, making this a great point of departure for students approaching the topic for the first time. Key themes and areas of interest are the Middle East, American literature, identity and its politics, feminism, diaspora, family, belonging, diversity, prejudice, discrimination, and culture. It is recommended for academic libraries interested in these topics as well as for public libraries and general readership.

Justin Parrott
New York University in Abu Dhabi